Is There a Touchless Office in Your Future?

Paul Gillin

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007 he probably never imagined it would become a lifeline for office workers during a global pandemic, but smart phones will be one of the key technologies that enable the transition to a workplace where there is far less touching going on.

As businesses around the world cautiously reopen or plan for a reopening, office managers will need to take a hard look at removing shared surfaces from the workplace. Offices are full of objects that dozens of people touch every day, making them prime breeding grounds for contagion. Doors, light switches, copiers, coffee machines, conference tables, whiteboards, faucets and supply cabinets are just a few of the everyday items that will need to be revisited with an eye toward touchless use.

Progress will proceed along two paths. One will replace tasks that currently require hands and fingers with technology that recognizes gestures and voice commands wherever possible. For more complex situations the goal will be to shift interactions from a shared device to a personal one, such as a laptop computer or smart phone.

Fortunately, the technology already exists to eliminate the need for human touches in many scenarios. For example, touchless soap and paper towel dispensers have been around for years and will quickly become ubiquitous. Motion sensors are an inexpensive replacement for light switches and can also be used to automate the opening and closing of doors and adjustment of thermostats. Voice recognition can be used for the same purposes as well as to dial telephones and operate kiosks.

Smart phones will be particularly useful in situations requiring authentication, such as registering guests to a business space or enabling access to sensitive areas. Phones can also replace shared control pads for tasks involving multiple commands such as operating a copier or a vending machine.

Proxy, NexKey, OpenPath and CrowdComfort are among the companies pursuing smart phone-based solutions that minimize touch in the workplace. They’re building smartphone apps that automate such functions as physical access control, lighting, HVAC and operating elevators, making it possible for people to navigate shared spaces with hardly a touch. For example, CrowdComfort’s technology makes it easy for employees to submit geo-located facilities-related requests related to issues such as comfort, maintenance, and safety in a matter of seconds. Employees don’t have to struggle with paper or look up phone numbers and they get full visibility into the status of their requests at the touch of a key. Numerous apps already exist that allow smartphones to be used to operate standard office fixtures such as copiers, conference bridges and kiosk machines.

Those are the easy problems to solve. Technologies to replace shared whiteboards, automate the loading of paper into printers and open and close bathroom stall doors either don’t exist or haven’t gone mainstream for reasons of cost, convenience and practicality. For tasks that can’t be made touchless – such as replenishing supplies – office managers may need to designate certain people and equip them with appropriate protection. And we’re still a long way from the touchless cafeteria.

Absent government mandates, we can also expect that it will be a long time before the fully touchless office is mainstream. In the meantime, office managers should plan on stocking up on hand sanitizer (delivered via touchless dispensers, of course) and rubber gloves. They may also take inspiration from low-tech solutions such as Eaton’s touchless tool, which requires no batteries because it runs on human power.

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